Turkmenistan: Renaissance man

Turkmenistan: Renaissance man
Turkmenistan’s former president holding up a soccer ball during a recent inspection of Arkadag city. / State TV, screenshot
By Akhal-Teke: A Eurasianet Bulletin December 12, 2023

Fresh from securing a natural gas swap deal with Iraq, Turkmenistan is looking to do more of the same, with Turkey this time.

Conversations on this subject came up during talks held under the auspices of a Turkish-Turkmen intergovernmental commission meeting held in Ashgabat on December 6.

Once more, Iran is being positioned as the hinge element in this deal, since the arrangement would entail Turkmenistan providing gas to Iran, which would then presumably pipe an equivalent amount across its border with Turkey. Tehran already supplies Ankara with gas, so the swap deal may simply serve to consolidate and possibly increase that movement of fuel. 

The Turkish delegation visiting Turkmenistan was headed by Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz. His remarks, as framed by journalists attending press events, conveyed an even broader agenda. 

Russian state news agency TASS cited Yilmaz as saying that he sees Turkey’s role as becoming a conduit for Turkmen gas and even electricity to reach markets further afield.

“Whether we are talking about Turkmen natural gas or electricity, we are ready to implement large projects to bring them to world markets," he told a Turkmen-Turkish business forum.

This vision was described in even more baldly strategic terms when Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov travelled to Ankara in October. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the time: “In the current conjuncture, the supply of Turkmenistan's natural gas to Turkey and through Turkey to global markets has gained a special strategic value.”

Turkmenistan stands to earn some gas cash. Turkey has its sights trained much higher.

In truth, the gas dialogue rests on conjecture and abstract hypotheticals until deals are made. But there is a lot more going on in Turkish-Turkmen trade than that. In remarks carried by RIA-Novosti news agency, Yilmaz pointed out that annual bilateral trade is nearing the $3bn mark. Driving this point home, he noted that where trade amounted to around $2bn for all of 2020, some $2.5bn of goods and services have been exchanged in the first 11 months of this year. The next milestone is $5bn, he said, adding that he believed this target could be reached in “a short time.”

Turkmenistan is nevertheless demonstrably eager to show it has numerous suitors and options — and that it is accordingly not prone to becoming any nation’s strategic cat’s-paw.

State daily newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan on December 7 carried a piece by the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed Al Hai Al Hamli, who wrote of how bilateral trade between his country and Turkmenistan had, when discounting the factor of oil, reached $1.3bn in 2022 — a 50% jump on the year before.

“Our goal is to double the amount of trade in the coming years,” the ambassador wrote.

A lot of the running in the UAE’s engagement in Turkmenistan is being done by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, or ADFD, which in 2021 created a $100mn joint investment company. 

Turkmenistan will be happy to see more of this kind of interest arriving from the Middle East, as President Berdimuhamedov made clear in a December 12 speech delivered before an expanded meeting of the Cabinet also attended by representatives of the diplomatic community. Noting that his country has “significantly expanded relations with the countries of the Arab world,” he observed that more should be done to bolster those relations within the framework of a recently instituted Central Asia-Gulf Cooperation Council format.

The blink-and-miss-it section of the speech devoted to dealings with the West evinced a certain degree of impatience. Turkmenistan is engaged with Europe on a number of ambitious plans to cooperate in energy, transportation, technology and other areas, but these need to be buttressed by “specific content,” he said.

The United States did not even get a mention. The president’s thoughts on this dimension of foreign engagement were heard on December 5 after his meeting with Eric Stewart, the president of the US-Turkmenistan Business Council, a lobby group. Stewart is a familiar face in Ashgabat. But for all the times he has been to Turkmenistan, he has never been able to elicit much more from his interlocutors than bland assurances that “Turkmen-American economic partnership …will continue to develop dynamically on a long-term, mutually beneficial basis”.

On December 11, the national air carrier, Turkmenistan Airlines, announced on its website that it will resume servicing the Ashgabat-Moscow flight starting from December 15. This is a reversal of a decision adopted in August to suspend those flights — until at least October, it was said at the time — in response to security concerns sparked by a number of drone attacks on the Russian capital. An alternative route to the city of Kazan, around 800 kilometres (497 miles) east of Moscow, was made available. 

Later this month, a group of Turkmen railway technicians will travel to Afghanistan to conduct a study on the feasibility of continuing work on extending a 30-kilometre track built up to the border by Turkmen engineers. 

For all that Taliban-run Afghanistan has been frozen out by the world, the regime in Kabul is nevertheless interested in picking up where the previous government left off with initiatives like the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, which is intended to create a seamless transportation route running from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Turkmenistan’s assistance is absolutely essential. In a meeting between transportation officials from Kabul and Ashgabat earlier this month, the Afghan representatives spelled out their desire to see railroads laid down to Herat and even as far afield as Mazar-i-Sharif, which is a mooted undertaking also involving Uzbekistan.

None of this sort of thing draws much attention in the wider world, of course. What has really captivated global attention this month is how the freshly minted Arkadag soccer team — so named after the eponymous newly built city that is itself named in recognition of the honorific term used for the former president (and father of the incumbent), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov — earlier this month bagged the premier league title on its first attempt by winning 20 matches on the trot. 

Berdimuhamedov the senior is doubtlessly enthused with this result and is now concentrating his efforts on fashioning Arkadag FC’s brand. During an inspection of Arkadag city on December 9, he set aside time to study designs for the club’s new kit and logo. Of the kit, the former president, who remains de facto co-leader of the country, remarked that the color scheme should “fully comply with the Renaissance era spirit” now apparently prevailing in Turkmenistan.

Whatever the colours, it is probably safe to assume that Arkadag, whose lineup was the result of a shameless raid on the best players of the league, has many more title wins in store. 

Akhal-Teke is a weekly Eurasianet column compiling news and analysis from Turkmenistan.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.